Counseling in the Church: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — Part One |

T. A. McMahon

In this two-part series I’m addressing what I believe is the Adversary’s most successful device among his many deceptions (2 Corinthians:11:3), temptations (1 Corinthians:7:5; 1 Thessalonians:3:5), wiles (Ephesians:6:11), devices (2 Corinthians:2:11) and snares (1 Timothy:3:7), which have captured both professing and true believers in Jesus Christ…and I’m doing it with more than a little help from my friends, Dr. Martin Bobgan and his wife, Deidre. Between them they hold a half-dozen degrees. Martin’s Doctorate of Education is from the University of Colorado, and Deidre is a Phi Beta Kappa with a Master’s Degree in English. (The reason I’m saying this up front will become significant as you read through this article. I have no doubt that the information will disturb some of you.)

Regarding my own background, I grew up in the mental health community, literally. My father was a psychiatrist, and during my formative years we lived on the grounds of a large mental institution in central Ohio. He later became the director of a mental hospital in southern Ohio. Many of my relatives were involved in various mental health capacities, so my understanding of psychology is more experiential than academic. In other words, as I said, I grew up surrounded by it.

After becoming a believer, I spent decades comparing psychotherapy’s teachings with the Word of God. My personal experiences also contributed to my increasing compassion for those undergoing some of the mental problems of living and the damage that counseling has done not only to them but also to their counselors.

Even so, the title of this message may seem a bit disconcerting to some, and perhaps even confusing. Yet it is an accurate description of the state of counseling by those who profess to believe in Jesus and who claim to adhere to His Word.

Regarding counseling, some of it is good, some of it is bad, and some of it is definitely ugly:

1)  It’s good when it’s true to the Scriptures.

2)  It’s bad when it deviates from God’s instructions in word and practice.

3)  It’s ugly when its methods follow the concepts devised by the godless founders of psychotherapy and their latter-day disciples.

Having spent close to four decades observing and addressing false teachings and practices impacting the entire church (charismatic, conservative, liberal, fundamental, aberrational, etc.), nothing in my view has been as devious and controlling as psychotherapy.

Its effective deception has convinced the masses that it helps people by healing their mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. One critic of psychology’s influence throughout the world writes: “Psychological insight is the creed of our time. In the name of enlightenment, experts promise help and faith, knowledge and comfort. They devise confident formulas for happy living and ambitious plans for dissolving the knots of conflict. Psychology, according to its boosters, possesses worthwhile answers to our most difficult personal questions and practical solutions for our most intractable social problems. In the late twentieth-century United States, we are likely to believe what psychological experts tell us. They speak with authority to a vast audience…. Their advice is a big business” (from The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1995.

Referring to the ubiquitous (i.e., seeming to be everywhere) nature of psychology, she adds that it has “seeped into virtually every facet of existence.”

Tragically, it has come into the church and has overtaken much of it. Considering just one example, a survey of the 39 largest mission agencies in America reveals that one cannot be accepted for missionary work without a psychological stamp of approval, based on a psychological interview and psychological tests.

The contemporary evangelical church was led into much confusion regarding counseling during the 1960s and ’70s. That time period gave rise to the myth of “Christian psychology.” It’s a myth because there is no such thing. Search as you will the numerous recognized fields of psychology and you will not find Christian psychology!

Although there is no accredited degree in this field, the profession of “Christian psychology”—along with the regard in which its practitioners are held—is spreading exponentially.

In a message at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, an organization of psychologists who profess Christ, one speaker admitted that there is “no acceptable Christian psychology that is markedly different from non-Christian psychology,” and although there are “Christians who are psychologists, they basically do the same things as non-Christian psychologists” (from Psychoheresy Revised & Expanded chapter 2, 1 Sutherland, P and Poelstra, P “Aspects of Integration.” Paper presented at the meeting of the Western Association of Christians for Psychological Studies, Santa Barbara, CA, June 1976).

What then constitutes so-called Christian psychology and its practice? It is centered in the field of psychotherapy, also known as clinical counseling, which is simply talk therapy. Psychotherapy itself has no scientific basis. Its concepts and practices stem primarily from beliefs originated by influential theorists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Eric Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, B.F. Skinner and their latter-day disciples.

The fabrication that psychotherapy is scientific is due to the background of men like Freud and Jung, who earned medical degrees as psychiatrists. Their science degrees, however, had little or no relationship to their practice of psychotherapy.

Most of those who refer to themselves as Christian psychologists have earned degrees in psychology, focusing primarily on psychotherapy. Their training, therefore, is based upon the opinions and motives devised by the theorists previously noted and others.

The “Christian” aspects of their practices come about by attempting to integrate their Christian beliefs with their secular training. Although that may give the impression of reflecting Christianity, nearly all of the secular psychotherapeutic concepts are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Bible!

Considering just one of the many teachings of psychotherapy that oppose biblical Christianity, a foundational example is the differing perspectives on “self.” The Word of God and the psychological wisdom of men couldn’t be more at odds with one another!

The Bible teaches that “self” is at the root of humanity’s sin nature and must be in complete submission to God. Verses abound to that end: “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew:16:24).

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians:2:3-4).

Self is the chief focus of psychotherapy, running the gamut from self-love to self-deification. No teaching in the contemporary church has been more insidious and destructive than the self-love/self-esteem heresies of the twentieth-century. They are a fulfillment of prophecy of which the Holy Spirit had the Apostle Paul warn us: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves…” (2 Timothy:3:1-2). They have turned the truth of God’s Word upside down and continue to deceive Christians well into this century.

Before addressing specifics regarding the good, the bad, and the ugly, it’s important that we understand what the Bible teaches foundationally about counseling.

Number one: God is the only One who qualifies as Counselor. The reason should be obvious. God alone (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) knows the heart, mind, thoughts, and motivation of every human being.

And Jeremiah:17:10: “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” Revelation:2:23 repeats that of which only God is capable: “…I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”

In Isaiah:9:6, Jesus is called “Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God….” One function of the Holy Spirit is to convict humans of the sins that commence from their hearts (John:16:8). (More on this later, but suffice it to say that these abilities are beyond the capabilities of finite humanity.)

Number two: The content of counseling must be true to the Word of God. Acts:20:27: “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” And Romans:11:34: “For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?”

Where anything adds to or departs from these fundamental truths, they are “psychoheresies,” to use a term coined by the Bobgans. They define the term this way: “Psychoheresy is the integration of secular psychological counseling theories and therapies with the Bible. It is also the intrusion of such theories into the preaching and practice of Christianity, especially when they contradict or compromise biblical Christianity in terms of the nature of man, how he is to live, and how he changes.”

In our day, when belief in sound biblical doctrine is diminishing, e.g., “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Timothy:4:3), and fewer and fewer Christians are looking to the Scriptures for God’s help and guidance in living out their Christian lives, the universality of psychology with its lack of accountability and its focus on self has great appeal.

Much of its acceptance is also because of an underlying intimidation factor. People have been told—and believe—that the “professional experts” know better. They don’t. Their theories are clouded in pseudo-scientific language, giving the impression that they have the answers to life’s problems. Again, they don’t.

To the uninformed, the self-assurance of psychotherapists also appears intimidating. Yet, in truth, it’s wrapped up in nothing more than psychobabble. Nevertheless, their false claims are mostly accepted by osmosis rather than by one’s searching out the facts, causing many to yield to the self-proclaimed experts.

What are some of their beliefs?

“Psychotherapy is a scientific endeavor.”—No. Psychotherapy (i.e., psychological counseling) has no scientific basis. It’s simply talk. The counselee talks to the counselor and the counselor listens to the counselee. At times the counselor may ask questions and make suggestions.

Research psychologists who study the effectiveness of clinical counseling are in agreement that psychotherapy is not and cannot be scientific. Nevertheless, the widely believed myth is that it is a scientific practice! The content of the talk is drawn from a number of therapies in which the therapist has been trained. There are about 500 basic ones, but combinations thereof result in thousands of related therapies.

Psychological theories are often in conflict, even in contradiction, with one another. Furthermore, the counselee’s issues are revamped to fit within one or more of the counselor’s favored therapy or therapies.

Given the subjective nature of talk therapy, it should come as no surprise that studies have shown that professional counselors are no more successful than non-professionals—i.e., everyday folks who have never had any training in the field of counseling!

Some researchers point to the similar methods of native medicine men and shamans in “counseling” their tribal people and compare them with today’s psychotherapists. They note that the success/failure rate of both is comparable with these exceptions: the shamans charge less and release their “counselees” sooner.

Again, we are addressing “talk therapy.” That is hardly a practice in which one needs to earn a degree. Furthermore, it’s not the medium of “talk” that is the real problem in counseling. It is the message, i.e., the content of the talk.

The Bobgans remind us, “Christians should know and affirm that such psychology is merely the hunches, opinions, guesses, and particularly the wisdom of men that God rejects” (1 Corinthians 2).

Pastors who refer their church members out to professional counselors have either been duped by the myths of psychotherapy and fallen prey to its intimidation factor, or they simply do not believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word. Either way, they are not living up to their calling as shepherds of God’s sheep, if indeed they truly have that calling.

For all the errors that are found within psychotherapy’s theories and practices, the one that should have every biblical Christian fleeing psychological counseling is its concept of the nature of mankind. They claim that man is inherently good, which is their foundational belief.

What then of man’s ever-increasing problems of living, his struggles with relationships, his ongoing hostilities? We’re told that they are learned conditions stemming from factors outside of the individual: his or her upbringing by their parents, their physical and social environment, influences from their peers, educators, media, and so forth.

All such things are said to have shaped, even determined, the mental, emotional, and behavioral condition of his present state. The goal, therefore, of psychological counseling, through various means (mostly talk), is to restore one back to one’s “true [inherently good] self.”

On the other hand, if mankind is innately evil, as the Bible declares over and over, psychotherapy is out of business. Why? All the supposed “fixing” of humans through talk therapy cannot change humanity’s deeply-rooted evil nature. We are all like leopards that cannot change their spots. Only God can truly change us by giving us new life.

Jeremiah:17:9-10 spells out our inherent nature and tells us why only God is able to fix us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.”

Further biblical insights regarding the heart were written by English theologian Matthew Poole in his A Commentary on the Holy Bible penned in the 1700s. He declares that the deceitful heart is “unsearchable by others, deceitful with reference to ourselves, and abominably wicked so that neither can a man know his own heart, neither can any other know our hearts.”

Poole continues, “Lest these hypocrites should pretend that their hearts were not departed from God, or should say, Who then can judge us if none knoweth the Heart? Saith God, Though no creature knoweth the heart of another fellow creature, yet I know the hearts of all creatures, I search the secret thoughts and counsels and designs of all my creatures; for I will judge them according to their thoughts and the secret motions and affections of their souls, according to all their ways, and the fruit of their doings….”

That is so far beyond the capability of human counselors that any attempt to step into that role smacks of idolatry in the form of self-deification.


(To be continued)